OMAN’S CHANGING LABOUR LAWS

In the wake of the early days of the so-called Arab Spring, few countries of the Middle East region remained completely untouched by the knock-on effects of revolutionary fervour.

Some states, by taking swift and decisive action were able to defuse any potentially damaging conflicts at home. One such country was the Gulf state of Oman. As the governments of Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gadaffi teetered and eventually fell, Oman followed a policy of pouring oil on troubled waters. While some governments brought out riot police and water cannons, the government in Muscat listened to the voices of pro- test and took action, Government employees were given substantial salary increases; greater employment opportunitites were promised and all was restored to calm.

The decision of the Omani government, announced last month, to enforce a two-year ban on expatriates from returning to employment is part of the country’s ongoing plan to smooth out any wrinkles of discontent with its nationals.

Expatriate workers can no longer sign another contract if they have not completed at least two years in their previous employment. If they choose to give up their job before the two year period is complete, or are sacked or made redundant, they must now wait for a period of two years to return to Oman to take up a position with another employer.

Previously, the government imposed a six-month ban on cleaners and construction labourers from changing employers ‘mid-stream’ and the law to stop the recruitment of women expatriates passed onto the statute books a year before that.

Many business owners and company executives have welcomed the new restrictions on expatriates saying the move will provide stability and increased productivity in the private sector. However, it is difficult to see any obvious benefits to the country’s expatriate workers, many of whom have helped the Omanis build their country into the flourishing, vibrant place it holds in the world community today.

On a recent visit to the sultanate, Dr Khalil Al An- sari, a visiting researcher from Saudi Arabia’s Centre of Demographic Society, told Times of Oman: “The government’s decisions are about ensuring that the Omani population is not diluted by expatriates. It is not about productivity in the private sector or job creation for nationals but a demographic problem.”

In 2012, the Ministry of Manpower announced that the country wanted to reduce the proportion of expatriates in the private sector from 40% to 33%. Omani citizens constitute 55% of the population, while expatriates make up the rest. Of the nearly 1.76 million expatriates, 1.53 million are employees. The rest are their family members, according to the National Centre for Statistics and Information.

“These statistics have compelled the government to take measures to ensure the expatriate population does not increase to uncontrollable levels as we have seen in the United Arab Emirates or Kuwait,” noted Saif Al Mahrooqi, a retired statistician for the ex-Ministry of Economy and Finance, told the daily newspaper.

“The demographic problem is a major issue and it was first discussed in 2000 but it was then shelved. New directors who have since been employed by the manpower ministry are now bringing it back to the table for discussion but this time it seems there is a serious commitment to cut down the number of expatriates in Oman,” a Ministry of Manpower official, told Times of Oman.

Although the new legislation will never win universal approbation some analysts point to its introduction as a measure of the success Oman has achieved. A British journalist who has worked in Oman told The Middle East this week: “Expatriate workers can complain but in essence Oman is looking out for its own nationals. As in so many other things, the sultanate has observed the decisions taken by its neighbours and learned from their experience. If Omanis can take up these positions previously held by foreign workers, we should applaud them, they have come a long way.”

Noura Eskender

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